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The role of the media and social change

A multi-pronged campaign was organised, focusing on the rights of men who have sex with men, people living with HIV, and sex workers, including a media campaign, the launch of a website, and radio and TV personal appearances. In the context of a culture of violence against men having sex with men in Jamaica reflected in popular music, one of the campaigns, called ‘Stop Murder Music’, lobbied against and exposed the lyrics which incited violence against gay men. Human Rights Watch supported this project which was reported in the international media.

Another campaign was based upon a report, entitled „Hated to Death’, which documented abuse against bisexuals, men who sleep with men, and sex workers. It was seen as important to encourage groups to work together to advocate for their own humanity. Human Rights Watch, the local Human Rights Coalition and Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS) were involved, as were human rights groups whose primary focus was police brutality. The partners developed a real sense of solidarity – a breakthrough for the overall campaign. The general response was that the report could not be true or “the middle classes would have known about it‟.

Dr Carr explained that radio is generally the freest form of media, followed by television (although this has the disadvantages that people can be more easily identified). Print media is the most controlled and conservative with many newspapers refusing to print letters etc. The campaign preferred to use interactive media, including radio which is generally the freest in Jamaica and television, with gay men and sex workers being primed before speaking to prepare them to cope with negative comments.On one occasion a gay man, who had his jaw wired and was in a wheelchair as a result of a violent attack, was brought to an intervention at a human rights public meeting to prove that violence against gay men actually happened despite people‟s refusal to believe it. Respected human rights groups also held their own press campaigns to emphasise that homophobic violence is not acceptable. Alongside these campaigns there were continuous behind-the-scenes strategies between 2006-2008, to engage various groups within Jamaican society including; the Church, National HIV programmes, the police, local human rights allies and international alliances.

A significant breakthrough came when police actually intervened in a mob attack on three gay men outside a drug store, whereas previously they would have ignored such a call.

An opportunity for debate

In the case of sex workers, it is considered acceptable to have sex workers in clubs, whereas street workers are regarded far more negatively. The media also contributed to the negative view of sex workers by associating sex workers with crack addiction etc. There was a breakthrough however, when sex workers broke into the mainstream media when a newspaper article entitled ‘Tax Sex Workers!’ calculated that this could bring in $3.0 billion. The notion of taxing sex workers raised fundamental questions with regards to citizenship, power and the social impact for the Caribbean, because sex work is illegal. The article prompted a huge explosion in the media – picked up by radio broadcasts and two major national newspapers and finally by television – especially the nightly news broadcasts and rebroadcasts. Sex workers even issued their own press release and the debate spread to parliament and the Prime Minister.

Gay rights however are still seen as ‘counter to development’ and activists have started to tackle issues of governance – building relationships with politicians, local human rights organisations, and religious leaders. Stigma and discrimination, human rights abuse and gender inequalities are so multi-layered and embedded that they require engagement with key institutions and working inside and outside these institutions to create and enabling environment for change. Such structural challenges require strong alliances and it has been necessary to work at sustaining these relationships.

This project overall is ongoing and is still being documented at present, with an emphasis on ownership by the different groups involved and sharing the learning of each group working in similar ways with the media and building alliances.

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Key facts

This blog is part of the Spark discussion Addressing homophobia and the decriminalisation of sex work.
This discussion includes:
-Intro: Addressing homophobia and the decriminalisation of sex work
-The role of media and social change

Read more about the Spark project and other discussions